Coders Of The Future Will Not Be Engineers
By Jeff Sayre
When most people who read my blog see the word engineer they immediately think of those who write code for a living. In other words, computer programmers who may or may not have actual degrees in computer engineering. This is the definition of engineer that you should be thinking of in the title to this post.
Two-years ago this Saturday, Peter Thiel made a still-controversial announcement that kids are better off dropping out of college — or not going in the first place — and instead starting a company. To help motivate his quarry, and entice (grab) young talent twenty-years old and younger, Thiel offers a two-year mentorship and $100k. However, the thumbing of a college education may be a short-lived trend. Why? Because the next version of hacker will not be the computer whiz kid who is touted as the up and coming coding guru.* The next celebrated hackers will not be able to safely learn how to cut complex code in their bedroom.
If you have kids, siblings, nephews or nieces that are ten-years old or younger, you should advise them not only to go to college, but also consider biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or molecular engineering as their major. Why? Because in as few as ten years from now, the need for and desirability of computer coding skills will plateau and the frenetic pace of new InterWeb startups will be past peak.
In fact, experienced, high-quality coders will be a dime a dozen as the wild-west decades of the InterWeb come to an end. After about 30 years of growth, dominance, and innovation, the InterWeb as the hotbed of revolutionary innovation will come to pass. Instead, biology will experience a Cambrian explosion of revolutionary innovation, a renaissance period. More precisely, synthetic biologist will be like the much-hailed hackers of today.
Biologists who code with genes will be the new cool kids on the block. Web-2.0 startups will be a thing of the past. Whereas there will be some innovation in the Web-3.0 and Web-4.0 space, the true revolutions will be occurring in the hard sciences.
Startup successes will shift from coding in binary to coding in quaternary — the base-4 system of the genes. Other revolutions will occur in the nanotech space, coding products from the atom up using the periodic table of elements as ingredients.
Hacking will not mean coding in binary on a computer to create a new app, Web-2.0 service, or SaaS product. Instead, biohacking will be the hot pursuit. This I call CaaS — Cells as a service. Cells will be our manufaturing plants. Cells will be our computers. Cells will be our platform on which we innovate. CaaS will be the new open source mantra.
DNA may be the oldest operating system (OS) on Earth, but it is also one of the most powerful OSs. We now have the tools and technology to cheaply manipulate genes, to create synthetic genomes, and to store those genomes digitally. This means that genetic innovations — for instance new medicines, new products — can be electronically shared across the InterWebs and then printed out and enabled elsewhere with ease.
Of course, in the near term, molecular assemblers will be biologically based, they will be living cells. Novel, synthetic products will be created by encoding genes to produce the molecules of which nanotechnologists dream.
So if your are thinking about a future as a coder, a current-day hacker, a computer engineer, you might want to consider biohacking instead. And please, if you are in high school and considering not going to college because you believe all the real action, innovation, and opportunities lie in cutting code at a startup, think again. The code cutters of the near future will be slicing genes, not spitting out binary.
It is important to add that even though the hotly-sought-after coders of tomorrow will be biochemical and nanommaterial engineers, and not computer scientist, the career and skills of binary code hacking will still be important. Computer hackers will play key roles in synthetic biology and nanotechnology innovation. Data scientists will be required to help make sense of the exponential increase in data. Coders with a keen understanding of and grasp of linked data technologies will be necessary to help tie together all the data. The point is that what is currently the hot career and the engine of innovation — binary code-based startups — will shift to biohacking-based startups.
*Note: Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Fellowship is targeted at many different areas, not just InterWeb startups. However, very few (if any) teens will be truly able to compete with university-trained nanotechnologist, biochemsits, or molecular engineers.
Image Source: Visualizations of A-, B-, and Z- DNA strands via Wikipedia user Zephyris. Image is licensed under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 and Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.